unpacking the crisis: un(der)employment, entrepreneurship, participation and resistance

Citizens’ demands expose institutional failures: voices from the Spanish south.

Lucia Sell-Trujillo. May 2014. Traditionally, researchers have been blamed for living in the world of ideas whilst policy makers dealt with real life issues. However, contemporary demands are changing this situation. Although social scientists do still have to struggle with objectivizing existing concerns and maximizing research outputs, we believe that policy makers and institutional bodies are in a desperate need to articulate mechanisms that are agile enough to deal with very acute scenarios that are common place in our societies. It might be due to the slowness of the policy cycle which fails to adapt to a very volatile social reality, or it might also be that the principles guiding public policy are somehow too rigid and cannot adapt to real needs of their end-users: the citizens.

In Spain in general, and the south in particular, there is a clear perception that the system in place is generating policies or laws that are not effective to deal with the basic needs of its people and, as a consequence of this, people are not been treated fairly. This situation runs also parallel with the citizens’ general disenchantment with the makings of a bipartisan democracy and its political representatives. In this context, institutions are perceived to be aligned against the citizen.

We will illustrate this point using two cases from Andalucía, in southern Europe, a Spanish region historically deprived and contemporary hit by the highest unemployment rates in Europe. Recent figures1 indicate that 36.3% of Andalusians are unemployed, with 48.1% of those defined as long term unemployed and a youth unemployment rate of 66.1%.

A common question from abroad is how does a society deal with such high rates of unemployment? How come the average Spaniard is not up in arms rioting in the streets? Quick answers come usually from the land of the stereotypes expressed in terms of contempt and half-truths regarding their ability to party, their inclination to live day by day instead of worry for the future and the tendency to work in the black economy. So in short: they’ve got what they deserved; the construction of the Spanish grasshopper only favors the opposed discourse of the northern European ant. Nothing is further than the truth.

The reality is that the average unemployed Spaniard from the south has been forced to undertake a profound transformation in their ways of thinking. Some did not make it, as the increase on suicide rates indicate2. Some others are dealing with severe depression and suffer regularly anxiety and panic attacks3. But many others are just too busy finding alternative ways of surviving, either in the form of actual techniques to ‘become’ busy and overcome emotional misbalance, such as doing sports; or by finding ways to engage in their immediate community whilst cashing a bit of money to be able to get to the end of the month (llegar a fin de mes) doing odd jobs.

So when thinking about the average person from the south being on the dole, we can introduce different profiles, but none of them fit easily with the standard idea of free-rider opportunistic individual that sucks the state dry. It could be Nacho, who works in a garage with a contract of 6 hours per week – though he is putting far more hours but his employer is not willing to declare it; or Julian, a young architect that has moved to the countryside in order to be able to afford buying a house. He lives in a remote village and makes ends meet by renovating houses, replacing windows or doing room extensions in the area. Julian only declares those jobs that are substantial enough and require civil responsibility. Or it could be Pili, who has tried a thousand different initiatives to earn some money: a vintage shop, renting outfits for special occasions from the attic of her house and a cooking space as a community center. All of them have in common an extraordinary drive to survive, a favorable disposition to try out different experiences and a strong mindset to help each other in order to help themselves.

They are dealing with survival economy, and none of them are engaged in fraudulent activities but are rather managing desperate situations in the best possible manner. Can we really blame them?

Work cannot be equated with employment anymore, just as there are many different shades of being unemployed. Can we talk about employment when the person has a monthly or temporal contract and earns around 400 euros? Is somebody unemployed if she is getting some family benefits that amount to 350 euros has three kids to feed and is selling home cooked food?

[here more about how unemployment is not an adequate term any more, and how these people are not at all stigmatizes as cheaters, but are rather held in high regard due to their innovative drive and willingness to find a way out, the real go-getters]

The second case to exemplify the systemic institutional failure has to do with the housing crisis in Spain. There are around one million properties unsold in the national territory as a consequence of the Spanish property bubble. In many cases, ownership of buildings that have never been sold or inhabited have changed hands: they were first owned by construction companies, later passed to building societies (or cajas de ahorro) when the companies went bust, to be later owned by stronger banks that have absorbed or bought the smaller building societies. Of course, most of the houses built were never meant to be public housing or council owned. In the meantime, the Spanish banks are evicting families every day. In 2012 there were around 517 evictions per day, and in the first half of 2013 there were 35,098 evictions4. With high levels of unemployment and the severe cuts on social welfare, families have been forced out of their houses. The average profile would be that of a couple in the late 30s with small children who seven years ago had substantial salaries. Construction workers could easily earn around 2,000 euros per month, and if there was an additional salary in the household, they were happy to become house owners and mortgage payers.

Now, the odd thing is that your mortgage follows you for life. People are personally liable to pay the full amount, and once they fail in their payments, penalty interest and court fees are added on top of it. So in short, the person might be evicted after the failing of one payment, s/he might be homeless and jobless but still faces a debt and is blacklisted from any source of credit rating, which makes renting almost impossible. There are additional nightmares, such as elderly parents losing their homes as they were guarantors of their kids’ mortgages. These situations are relatively common to the point that evictions are not hitting the news anymore, even though they remain a national drama.

The answers provided by the public institutions at central, regional and local level are twofold: the central government has asked the banks to adhere to some sort of code of conduct by which they would try to protect the poorest Spaniards. As such, this very insufficient measure has been enforced by advocates and social activists that have created help groups to aid families facing eviction and forced negotiations with the banks5. On the other hand, the regional and local institutions do have some housing stock, but they have a lengthy system to allocate families in need to these houses. In Seville, for example, the town hall has a list of more than 12,000 families waiting for some form of public/council housing, and around 500 flats available that have not been used. While the list keeps increasing, the local institution is unable to respond and allocate the people due to a lengthy system of administrative procedures.

Obviously, when families are forced out of their homes, they might first go to some relative’s house, when possible. But this is not always a viable alternative. In these circumstances many families are just resorting the squatting. Sometimes their own neighbors help them to squat in their own homes, once they’ve been possessed by the banks after eviction. Some other times groups of evicted families (usually mothers) with the help of social activists from the local neighborhood occupy a building (such as the well reported case of the Corrala Utopia) but in most cases the squatting is done in a silent manner. Sometimes the parents go ‘flat hunting’ through a local state agency to eye a property that suits their needs. After some viewing and assessment, they squat the flat at night. This has resulted on state agents not advertising properties in a visual manner and asking for a bank statement as a requirement for viewing of properties.

The state needs to provide answers that are agile and hit the cause of the misbalances so as to reward the ability of those who are working in ‘negro’ because they need to eat (maybe by tax exemptions on a temporal basis), or to increase the number of council houses or by rewarding house owners, again through tax exemptions or benefits, social rent.

1 http://ep00.epimg.net/descargables/2014/04/15/5616e8a599c6b7681f8e58281d70d6c5.pdf
2 http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/134999/e94837.pdf?ua=1
3 http://www.defensordelpuebloandaluz.es/sites/default/files/INFORME_SALUD_MENTAL_DPA.pdf
4 Data from Spanish Central Bank: http://www.bde.es/f/webbde/GAP/Secciones/SalaPrensa/NotasInformativas/Briefing_notes/en/notabe%2027-01-2014en.pdf
5 PAH: Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca or 15M PIVE (Plataforma de la Intercomisión de Vivienda)